In luck we trust
WASHINGTON — As we evaluate the efficacy of the War on Poverty, a single, unquantifiable factor stubbornly demands attention: luck.
When it comes to the fortunes of the rich and the misfortunes of the poor, we recognize the role that luck plays. Some are born lucky — either through natural gifts of appearance, athleticism, intelligence or musical talent. The really lucky ones are also born into stable, educated families with financial security and grown-up parents. Then there are the unlucky, who, whatever their relative talents, are born into broken families, often to single mothers, in neighborhoods where systemic poverty, inferior educational opportunities and perhaps even crime constitute the culture in which they marinate. How we level the playing field between these two opposing narratives — how we weave the social safety net — is the challenge for a society that wants to help those in need without perpetuating that need. Is the solution greater government intervention, as Democrats prefer? Or, is the answer temporary taxpayer assistance tied to personal responsibility, as Republicans insist?
The simple answer is both, but simple doesn’t cut it in Washington. You’d think these guys were being paid by the hour. Both perspectives received fresh airings recently at the Brookings Institution. As reported by Melinda Henneberger in The Washington Post, Republican Paul Ryan offered that welfare should be a ramp up, not a way station. Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand focused on greater mobility for women through pay equity, universal pre-kindergarten funding, more affordable child care and an increased minimum wage.
In other words, they each offered more or less the same arguments their respective parties have made for the past several decades. No new ideas, Henneberger concluded. If I may. This is not a new idea but recently has fallen into disrepair if not disrepute, though it would help in the War on Poverty: Marriage. Or, as some of us prefer, maowidge.
Democrats avoid the M-word for fear of trespassing on important constituent turfs, especially women’s. For many women, the push for marriage is seen as subterfuge for reversing their hard-won gains. All but evangelicalistic Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio, who recently “went there,” shy away from the M-word for fear of being tagged Neanderthals who are wedded to old-fashioned gender paradigms and nurse secret desires to keep women pregnant, subjugated and in the kitchen where they belong (speaking as alleged, not as is). Or, God forbid, that they be accused of waging war against women. Then again, perhaps it is the way some Republican men talk about women that is so off-putting, rather than what they are trying to say about the value of marriage. It is not helpful when, for example, they insinuate that single mothers are using welfare to avoid marriage. Or when some of the more nostalgic members of the GOP latch onto the idea of “welfare queens.” See what I mean? It’s hard to separate the value of marriage from the maowidge of loaded rhetoric and demeaning insinuation. But marriage, besides being the best arrangement for children, has the added benefit of being good for grown-ups. Half the pain, twice the joy. What’s not to love?
More to the point, we know that being unmarried is one of the highest risk factors for poverty. This isn’t only because splitting the cable bill is cheaper when there are two, but because marriage creates a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and commitment. In the absence of marriage, single parents (usually mothers) are left holding the baby and all the commensurate challenges and financial burdens, minus the emotional support that helps hold spirits aloft. As a practical matter, how is a woman supposed to care for little ones and/or pay for child care, while working for a minimum wage that is significantly less than what most fair-minded, lucky people would consider paying the house cleaner? Not very well.
Setting aside the issue of choice in reproductive matters, one easily observes that we live in a culture that devalues and mocks marriage, reducing the institution to a buffet item. The lucky can hire a pedigreed baby sitter en route to the next dinner party, dropping a buck in the beggar’s cup, while the unlucky are strapped to a welfare check or low-paying job and a no-hope future. Obviously, marriage won’t cure all ills. Every single parent could marry tomorrow and she still wouldn’t have a job. But in the War on Poverty, rebuilding a culture that encourages marriage should be part of the arsenal. The luck of the draw isn’t nearly enough — and sometimes old ideas are the best new ideas.
Kathleen Parker’s syndicated column appears regularly in the Tribune-Herald. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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